A high-level U.N conference on AIDS has exposed deep strategic differences between world leaders and rights groups representing victims of the epidemic. A final conference declaration breaks new ground in addressing what Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls "the greatest challenge of our generation".
Speaking to an audience of presidents, prime ministers, an African king, U.S. first lady Laura Bush and more than one hundred government minister Friday, Secretary-General Annan spoke the painful truth. The billions of dollars spent on fighting AIDS have failed to stop the spread of the deadly disease. "The epidemic continues to outpace us. Last year, globally, there were more new infections than ever before, and more people died than ever before," he said.
Mrs. Bush, heading the U.S. delegation at the meeting, urged world leaders to ensure that their people understand clearly how the disease spreads. "All people need to know how AIDS is transmitted, and every country has an obligation to educate its citizens. This is why every country must also improve literacy, especially for women and girls, so they can learn to make wise choices that will keep them healthy and safe," she said.
A non-binding declaration presented to the meeting Friday calls for more than doubling funds to fight AIDS over the next five years. But major donor countries, including the United States, Japan and European countries objected to activists' demand for strict financial targets.
Many AIDS activists denounced the final declaration, charging that it did not go far enough in committing governments to action.
But U.N. AIDS Chief, Dr. Peter Piot, who worked hard to reach an agreement, rejected the activists' criticism. He noted that the declaration places on the international agenda for the first time such controversial issues as condom use, and the spread of AIDS among vulnerable groups such as injecting drug users, prostitutes and homosexuals. "This is where I totally disagree with the activists' analysis when it comes to the prevention of HIV and injecting drug users. I know this will be extremely useful for people working on AIDS in countries. For the first time, a number of some of the most controversial issues in AIDS are in there with an internationally-agreed text," he said.
General Assembly President Jan Eliasson attempted to soothe AIDS activists upset by the agreement. He called the declaration a "forward-looking document" that contains stronger language that might have been possible considering the deep divisions over politically sensitive issues. "The United Nations is also a reflection, a mirror of the world as it is. There's 191 nations negotiating. You want to have agreement by all nations. An alternative would be to write something very lofty to which nobody would pay any attention. Now all countries are committed to this, and they if do what is in this document, they will have a lot of things done," he said.
The draft declaration recognizes the need to spend $23 billion a year in the fight against AIDS, but does not commit donors to any specific contribution. The United States previously announced a five-year, $15 billion initiative to combat the disease in 120 countries.
U.N. officials estimate that 25 million people have died since AIDS was first identified a quarter of a century ago.